I Corinthians 3

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
November 2023

Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; 20 and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.”

21 So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23 and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God. (I Corinthians 3:18-23 NIV)

Today, we want to talk about self-deception.  It is a big problem today.  It is even a problem for Christians.  Paul warned the Corinthians about it. What is self-deception?  Are we guilty of it in any area of our life?

We are finishing the third chapter of I Corinthians today.  It is Paul’s letter to the problem church.

The first problem that he deals with is the problem of divisions.  He spends four chapters on the topic.  It is a common problem in churches today.

Paul dealt with that problem first, even before he dealt with the problem of sexual sin in the church.  Division is a huge problem in families today.  It leads to the tragedy of divorce.

Division is a big problem in the church today.  There is no fight like a church fight.  Division leads to church splits.  It leads to people leaving churches and going to another church.  It can lead to a church closing.

It is a huge problem in our nation today.  America is an incredibly divided country.  A year from now, we will be going to the polls to vote for a president and the country is completely divided along party lines.

Today, we are going to see what causes divisions.  Divisions are not just behavioral issues but heart issues. Paul points out two things that cause divisions.

The two causes of division are thinking too highly of yourself and thinking too highly of others.  There are two commands here.  There are two prohibitions: Do not deceive yourself and do not boast in men.  Let’s look at these two causes.  Let’s look at them.

Thinking Too Highly of Yourself

The first cause is self-deception.  Paul says, “Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become ‘fools’ so that you may become wise” (I Corinthians 3:18 NIV).

Self-deception is a result of pride.  People think too highly of themselves.  They always think they are right.  They always think they know everything. 

We think we are wise, and everyone should listen to us.  When they don’t, we get mad.  We get in arguments with other believers and sometimes leave the church.

Division is an issue of self-deception.  How were the Corinthians self-deceived?  The Corinthians thought they were wise, but they weren’t.

Paul said that they needed to do some things to become wise.  They needed to become fools to become wise.

Two Forms of Deception

Let’s talk about deception.  There are really two forms of deception.  There is deception when other people trick us and there is deception when we trick ourselves.

1) Deception from others

How does that happen?  Scammers and con artists who tell us things that are not true.  People believe them and they get duped.  It happens every day.

Religious deception happens as well.  False teachers tell us things that are not true.  There are many examples of this in Scripture, but we are told not to be deceived.

Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. (Ephesians 5:6 NIV)

Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. (II Thessalonians 2:3 NIV)

Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. (I John 3:7 ESV)

These were false teachers in the first century.  There are many false teachers today in our own day.

What false teaching looks like today may be a little different than what it looked like in the first century, but the result is the same.

Many Christians believe some things that are not true.  They are deceived.  They have little discernment.  The only way to avoid it is to know the truth.

If you read God’s Word, study it, memorize it and meditate on it and obey it, you will not be deceived when false teachers appear and you will not be tossed back and forth with every wind of doctrine (Ephesians 4:14).

Sometimes they come into churches.  You can’t tell they are false teachers at first.  They blend in with everyone else.

2) Deception from yourself

This is not a deception from others, but a deception from yourself.  It is bad enough if other people tell you things that are not true and deceive you.

It makes you mad when someone rips you off.  It makes you angry.  You might have lost a lot of money because of it.

This is when you deceive yourself.  The worst form of deception is self-deception.  It is bad enough when someone else lies to you.  It is even worse when you lie to yourself.

Why would people lie to themselves?  The Bible teaches that the heart is deceitful.

“The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9 NJKV)

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9 NIV).

It is not talking about the organ in our chest that pumps blood through every part of our body.  The biblical definition of the heart is different from the medical definition.

The Bible speaks of your heart as the center of your being.  It is the core of your being.  Notice what the Bible says about it.

This says three things about the human heart.  The human heart is WICKED.  It does some terrible things.  It is shocking what some people do to other people.

The human heart is DECEITFUL.  It can deceive us.  It can make us believe all kinds of things that are not true.

It is also SICK.  It is sick beyond repair.  The NIV says that it is “beyond cure.”  This word is used in Jeremiah of wounds that will not heal (Jeremiah 15:18; 10:19).

That is why we need a new heart.  We need regeneration.  We need to be born again.  The old heart cannot be repaired. The only solution is a heart transplant.

But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. (Hebrews 3:13 NIV).  Sin can deceive us.  It deceived Adam and Eve and can deceive us as well.

What is shocking is that unbelievers are not the only ones who can deceive themselves.

It is not just the unsaved but Christians who are capable of doing this.  We know that because Paul told the Corinthians not to deceive themselves.

That means it was possible for it to happen.  We can’t criticize the ignorant Corinthians for doing this.  We do it as well.  Is there any area of your life where you have deceived yourself?

Areas of Self-Deception

1. Health

Some of us deceive ourselves about our health.  We may have serious health problems.  We know we have a problem, but we live in denial.  We tell ourselves that we are fine.  We nationalize it.  We tell ourselves that we are fine.

2. Addictions

We can deceive ourselves about addictions.  We can tell ourselves that we do not have a problem with drinking or drugs, when we know that we do have a problem.  We tell ourselves that the addiction is under control.  That is self-deception.

3. Spiritual Condition

We can deceive ourselves about our spiritual state. There are plenty of serial killers who don’t think they are that bad. They are blind to their own spiritual state.

Some live a life completely out of the will of God but think they are fine.  Some professing Christians are like that.  They think they are spiritual but they are not.

You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. (Revelation 3:17 NIV)

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. (I John 1:8 NIV)

We may think we are doing great spiritually when we are doing terribly.  Some claim to be without sin but none of us are without sin.  If anyone claims to be without sin, that person is lying.  It is self-deception.

4. Eternal Destiny

We can deceive ourselves about salvation.  We can deceive ourselves about our eternal destiny.  We think we are going to heaven.  We tell ourselves we are going to Heaven when we are actually going to Hell.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:21-23 NIV)

Here you have people who are professing Christians.  They are doing evil.  They know they are doing evil but believe that they will be going to heaven and they are shocked when Jesus tells them that they are not.  They were self-deceived.  They told themselves lies.

5. Importance

Another area of self-deception comes from an over-inflated ego.  That is one way where we can deceive ourselves.

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. (Romans 12:3 NIV)

If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. (Galatians 6:3 NIV)

That is the cause of many divisions in the church.  We think we are something when we are nothing.  We are the experts.  We are the smartest ones in the room.

We think too highly of ourselves and when others do not listen to us, we are upset.  How many of us think too highly of ourselves?  Do we think we are better than other people?  Do we look down on people who are not as educated or as smart or as wealthy as we are?  That is self-deception.

6. Obedience

Another way we deceive ourselves is in the area of obedience.  Hearing the Word preached is not enough.  Coming to church every week is not enough.  We must do what the Word says.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. (James 1:22 NIV)

7. Intelligence

A final way that people deceive themselves today is in the area of intelligence.  It is in the area of wisdom.  How do we deceive ourselves with wisdom?  We claim to be wise when we are not.

Just spend some time ith teenagers.  You can’t tell them anyhting.  They know everything.  they are wise in their own eyes.  The Corinthians thought they were wise but Paul said that they were not.  They needed to become fools to be really wise.

Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; 20 and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.”

Questions about Wisdom

This is one of the strangest passages in the book.  It raises this question:  Is God against wisdom?  Is He against smart people?  He catches the wise in their craftiness.  Why is the wisdom of the world foolishness in God’s sight?

Why does Paul say if you want to become wise, you have to become a fool.  That’s a Bible paradox.  There are a lot of paradoxes in the Bible.

If you want to go up, go down.  If you want to be exalted, you have to be humbled (Luke 14:11). If you want to be first, be last (Matthew 19:30).  If you want to be strong, be weak (II Corinthians 12:10).

If you want to get, you have to give.  Jesus said, “Give and it will be given to you” (Luke 6:38).  If you want to find your life, you have to lose it (Matthew 10:39).

If you want to save your life, you have to lose it (Mark 8:35). If you want to be great, you have to serve (Matthew 20:26).

These are paradoxes of the Christian life.  Weak is strong.  Giving is getting. First is last.  Humbled is exalted.  Finding is losing.  Saving is losing.  Greatness is serving others.

Now, we have another paradox.  Foolishness is wisdom.  Paul says, “If you want to be wise, you must be a fool.”  You must be God’s fool.  Paul called himself a fool for Christ (I Corinthians 4:10).

1. Is the Bible against Wisdom?

The answer is clearly No.  The Bible exalts wisdom.  The Bible commands us to get wisdom.

For wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her. (Proverbs 8:11 ESV))

How much better to get wisdom than gold, to get insight rather than silver! (Proverbs 16:16 NIV)

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10 NIV)

Get wisdom, get understanding (Proverbs 4:5 NIV)

Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding. (Proverbs 4:7 NIV)

The Bible is NOT against wisdom.  Paul is talking about secular wisdom.  He is not saying that wisdom is foolishness in the sight of God.  He is saying that “the wisdom of this world” is foolishness in the sight of God.  Sometimes worldly wisdom creeps into the church.

In I Corinthians 1, we saw that the preaching of the cross, the gospel, is foolishness to the world.  I Corinthians 3, we see that the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God.  Paul quotes two OT verses to prove it.

Many of the things that you hear in the world and in the media everyday are absolute foolishness to God.

The world does not turn to the Bible for its source of morality.

The world says that it is okay for a woman to kill her own children.

The world says that it is okay for two men or two women to get married.

The world says that it is okay for a boy to say he is a girl or for a girl to say that she is a girl.

The world says that it is okay for a boy to use the girls bathroom.

The world says that it is okay for a boy to use women’s locker rooms.

The world says that it is okay for a boy to play in girl’s sports.

Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:22 KJV)

2. Does the Bible encourage people to be fools?

The answer again is No.  Read Proverbs.  There are all kinds of verses against fools.  It tells us not to be like them.  It tells us to stay away from them (Proverbs 14:7).  It tells us not to speak to fools (Proverbs 23:9).

Why does Paul say that we have to become fools to be wise?  If you become a Christian and believe the Bible, the world will call you a fool.

It will call you intolerant to call certain behaviors sinful or immoral.  It will call you unscientific if you believe in creation or believe that miracles are possible.

It will call you not inclusive to say that people who reject Christ will go to hell.  The world says that there are many paths to God.  To say that there is just one is intolerant and narrow-minded.

You can either follow the wisdom of the world or the wisdom of God.  The only way to be truly wise is to become a fool in the world’s eyes and accept Christ.

Thinking Too Highly of Others

So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23 and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.

This passage deals with the relationship of Christians to ministers. The Corinthians not only exalted human wisdom; they exalted human leaders.

That is another cause of division in the church today.  If you love just one preacher and follow that one preacher, you become divisive.  You are not open to listening to anyone one else in the church.

God has given gifts to more than just one person in the church.  We have Christians today who exalt human leaders.

The Corinthians BOASTED in their leaders (I Corinthians 3:21).  They liked some better than others because they were better preachers.  They were better speakers.  They were better communicators.

Now we should submit to the leaders of our church.  We are to honor our leaders.  We should honor our pastor.  We should honor our elders and our deacons, but we should beware of preacher worship.

We should beware of treating the pastor like a celebrity or a rock star.  In some cases, you have to wonder if Christians are worshipping God or the pastor.  Some never dare question what the pastor says.  That is a form of idolatry.

All Things Are Yours

What does Paul mean that all things are yours?  That is one of the strangest statements in the Bible.

He told the saints at Corinth this.  Paul said it, not once but twice (I Corinthians 3:21, 22).

What does it mean?  Paul did not say that some things are yours.  He said that ALL things are yours.

If all things are yours, does this mean that your car is my car, and your house is my house?

Can we ask the owner of a fifty-million-dollar home to hand over to us the keys and the title to the property because all things are ours?

That sounds like communism.  Everybody owns everything.  That is not what it is talking about.  It is also not talking about prosperity theology.

Prosperity preachers abuse this verse.  They would say pray for anything and everything and you will get it, because God has already given it to you.  All things are yours.

Is that what Paul is talking about?  What is the context of the passage? It is not dealing with possessions but preachers.  What is Paul saying?

He is saying that the preachers are not your masters.  They are your servants.  You said, “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Apollos.”  You got it backwards.

Paul and Apollos belong to you.  We don’t have to divide between Paul and Apollos.  We can have them both.

Every teacher of the church belongs to you.  Jesus gave them to you (cf. Ephesians 4:11).  We should not limit ourselves to following just one man.[1]

Paul then moves beyond teachers and ministers.  He says, “all things are yours.”  He then mentions five categories (the world, life, death, the present, the future)

Someone said that the things that enslave us, the things that hold us in bondage, control us any longer.

The world is ours.  Life is ours.  Death is ours.  We don’t have to be afraid of it.  Death is our servant, not our master.

If you have cancer and you are dying, you don’t have to worry about death.  It is just going to lead us into the presence of God.

The present is ours and so is the future.  We know what will happen in the future.  We know biblical prophecy and we know what happens at the end.

For I am convinced that neither DEATH nor LIFE, neither angels nor demons, neither the PRESENT nor the FUTURE, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39 NIV)

Why is this true?  Because we are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.  If we were not Christ’s, none of this would be true.  We are joint heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17).  We are going to rule and reign with Christ (Revelation 20:4).

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence. (II Peter 1:3 ESV)

[1] William Hixson, I Corinthians 3:18-23 (spoken recording)

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